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It’s Valentine’s Day! What is your company’s love policy?

February 14, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Joe DeSantis

Valentine’s Day comes around once every year, which is just about right for most HR departments. It is one of those days, like Halloween and the Friday before the Michigan-Michigan State football game, when employees are allowed to take partial leave of their senses in the name of good fun. Typically, it builds morale and no one is the worse for all of the basic silliness of it.

But Valentine’s Day also offers the occasion to think about the organization’s policy on workplace romances.

The workplace is in part a marketplace for romance. It has always been that, but never more than now. That is because people spend so much more time in it than ever before, and there is more balance between the genders than ever before.

Consider the results of a national survey from about a year ago that gauged the attitudes of the different generations in the workplace towards workplace romances:

  • Among Gen Y’ers (age 18-29), 84% said they would engage in romance with a coworker; only 36% of Gen X’ers (age 30-45) and 29% of Boomers (age 46-65) said the same thing.
  • Seventy-one percent (71%) of Gen Y’ers believe a workplace romance can improve morale and even job performance.  
  • Forty percent (40%) of Gen Y’ers see no negatives in a workplace romance; only 10% of Boomers feel the same way.
  • Fifty-seven percent (57%) of all respondents said they would share the details with others, usually via social networks, if they had a workplace romance.
  • Forty percent (40%) of Gen Y’ers said that if they were so inclined they would date their supervisors. Only 12% of older respondents said the same thing.

Clearly, when it comes to romance the workplace today bears almost no resemblance to the workplace of 20 or even 10 years ago. Back then organizations felt capable of managing workplace romances, and justified in doing so. But no more.

But because of the legal risks, which haven’t gone away, management faces a real dilemma. It cannot realistically prevent workplace romances, but neither can it look the other way when a workplace romance degenerates into sexual harassment and/or threatens productivity or the good operation of the workplace.

Most legal experts agree that there is no such thing as a policy on workplace romance that will keep a company out of legal trouble every time a romantic relationship goes south. But those same experts would agree that having such a policy is better than not having one. The trick is to craft it so that it takes on the cases it should take on and stays away from the ones it would be futile, or legally risky, to take on.

According to, a good written policy on workplace romance needs to state clearly what is, and what is not, acceptable in a workplace dating relationship. Above all it must protect the company against liability in the event of sexual harassment. It should include these features:

  • It should prohibit supervisors from dating subordinates, romantic trysts from occurring in the workplace, and public displays of affection in the workplace.
  • It should state clearly what the penalties are for violating the policies (e.g., transfer, demotion, termination, etc.).
  • It should take a zero-tolerance position towards sexual harassment in any of its forms as well as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.
  • It should respect employee privacy, primarily by making it very clear that its ultimate purpose is to maintain workplace performance.
  • It should encourage couples involved in such relationships to make their relationship known to management, so that if any actions need to be taken (e.g., transfers) they can be arrived at mutually by management and the couple involved. To make this part of the policy work, management must demonstrate its tolerance for such relationships, when they are appropriate, at every opportunity it gets.

When all is said and done, however, having a policy in place is not what really protects the company from liability when a workplace romance goes bad. It helps, of course. But how management responds to such circumstances when they occur is far more important. The response must be prompt but deliberate and meticulously in keeping with the written policy.

Workplace romances have always existed and are probably more prevalent today than ever. Consider that a CareerBuilder survey last year found that 40% of responding workers had dated a coworker at some point in their careers.

Wise employers realize that a more tolerant approach than that of years past is the order of the day. But a written policy that protects the employer where it can provide such protection still makes abundant good sense.

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